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Environment Commissioner raises alarm; government remains passive and indifferent

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The British North America (BNA) Act, the founding Canadian constitutional document, makes no mention of the environment as a public policy area.

While the BNA Act assigns education and health to the provinces and the military to the federal government, it assigns the environment to nobody.

It was not until 1971, under Prime Minister Trudeau, that Canada got its first Environment Minister, British Columbia’s Jack Davis. Since that time there have been twenty environment ministers, including the current incumbent, Peter Kent.

Some have been fairly low-profile. Prime Ministers have often considered the environment to be a junior-level responsibility.

Others, however, have been much more prominent and powerful. Among Prime Minister Mulroney’s Environment Ministers were Lucien Bouchard and Jean Charest, both influential voices at the Cabinet table.

In fact, Mulroney once famously said that the environment would be a central focus of his government, the measure of all things. True to his word, under Mulroney’s watch Canada became the first industrialized country to ratify both the biodiversity convention and the first UN climate change convention.

Harper demonizes the environment, breaking a consensus going back years

The truth is that from the time it became a live concern in the 1970s to just about 2006 the environment was not a source of major partisan, political conflict in Canada.

There were differences of view, of course; but, for all parties, the environment was a bit like motherhood – hard to be against.

Then along came the Harper Conservatives.

Harper’s is the first Canadian government to quite deliberately try to demonize the environment and environmentalists. That’s why, for months, Conservative MPs would rise each day in Parliament to ritually (and often in a laughable, mechanical manner) decry the NDP’s so-called “job-killing carbon tax.”

No matter that the NDP does not even propose a carbon tax system. The Official Opposition favours putting a price on carbon through a cap-and-trade system.

The Harper Conservatives obviously believe there is a political market for “green-bashing”, a little bit like the “red (or Commie) bashing” of another time.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver even implied, more than a year ago, that environmental groups (financed, it seems, by “billionaire American socialists” – now that must be a small club!) were enemies of the sacred “Canadian economy”.

He told an interviewer that foreign owned companies that intervened in Canadian environmental hearings were entirely legitimate, because they would “contribute to our economy” -- not to mention their own profits.

Environmental advocates -- who have no profit motive -- wanted, said Oliver, to “turn Canada into a vast national park”.

The loneliness of the outgoing Commissioner

Maybe Harper, Oliver, et al., are on to something. Maybe a significant portion of the voting public has no concern for the fate of the earth, as long as they’re warm, employed, and they can catch Don Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada.

If that is so, the job of Canada’s Environment Commissioner must be a pretty thankless and lonely one.

Scott Vaughan, the Commissioner, who is an adjunct to the Auditor General’s office, issued his final report on Tuesday. He moves on to new challenges shortly, two years ahead of his scheduled departure.

On Tuesday, Vaughan made a number of quite bracing observations about Canada's environmental preparedness.

He warned that the federal government knows virtually nothing about the hundreds of chemicals which are used as part of shale gas hydraulic “fracking” operations – hundreds of thousands of them – throughout Canada.

He said Canada has no credible plan to deal with an off-shore oil spill. The agencies involved have not coordinated their preparatory efforts and it is entirely unclear who should do what in case disaster strikes.

He said there have been no inspections, as required by law, of 70% of northern mining sites, sites found in the heart of First Nations homelands.

He warned Canadians that the financial assurances resource companies are obliged to provide in the case of nuclear accidents or oil spills are laughably puny and out of date.

As for the current government’s roll-backs of environmental oversight, review and regulation, tucked into the two Budget omnibus bills – the Commissioner says they are engendering confusion and near paralysis in the government.

Environment officials have reported to Vaughan that they do not know what to do, precisely, and, for now, are continuing to live by the old regulations.

The new, laxer, rules -- just to cite one example that Vaughan used -- remove exploratory oil wells from all oversight. This, Vaughan says bluntly, is dangerous. The well that blew in the Gulf of Mexico creating the United States' greatest ever environmental disaster was, Vaughan points out, merely “exploratory”.

Last time Vaughan reported, the government pushed back

In Vaughan's report of last spring he noted that the Harper government was not only falling well short of the Kyoto targets for greenhouse gas reductions, but missing its own, new, much more modest targets, as well.

Minister Kent tried to argue that some of Vaughan's figures were out-of-date.

It was a singularly unconvincing argument that Kent abandoned after one day.

In the spring of 2012, Vaughan also pointed out that the government’s putative reason for dropping out of Kyoto was the excessive cost of compliance. However, the Commissioner noted, the government had not costed its alternative, regulatory approach.

Kent's answer was that it would take time, and consultations with industry, to do that costing.

Months later, appearing before the Commons Environment Committee, Kent still could provide no costing figures when asked by the NDP’s Anne Minh Thu Quach.

That was then -- a textbook passive-aggressive approach on the part of the government.

This time -- with the Commissioner due to take his leave -- the government chose to be bland and vague.

Vaughan has given us some good ideas in his most recent report, the Prime Minister said in response to a question from Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair, and left it at that.

The government has already eliminated the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, cut funding wherever it could to environmental research and independent environmental organizations, and radically curtailed the environmental review process for major resource projects.

Tuesday may have been a day for being a bit conciliatory, for treating the outgoing Environment Commissioner with at least a measure of professional courtesy.

 There will be time soon enough to get back to attacking environmentalists, and their allies on the Opposition benches, as the arch-enemies of Canadian prosperity.

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